For more than a decade now, poor power reliability in South Africa has had a crippling effect on the country’s economic development. According to a report by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa experienced 859 hours of power outages in 2020 alone, equivalent to 10% of the year spent in darkness. Eskom is currently in debt to the tune of 440 billion rand. This equates to just under half of the country’s annual budget.
Debt service charges of this amount alone, in addition to the now perennial electricity supply deficit, remain perhaps the greatest threat to the South African economy. In the 2022 budget, R21.9 billion was allocated to bail out Eskom (again). The current gap between electricity demand and supply is estimated between 4,000 MW and 6,000 MW. An additional 6,800 MW is at risk due to a lack of sufficient historical maintenance. In April 2022, unplanned outages of 15,000 MW occurred. Recent economic analysis shows that reliable oversupply is correlated with economic growth. In other words, growth-enhancing investments are unlikely to materialize until South Africa credibly demonstrates that its current supply shortages will be resolved.
Despite South Africa’s commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce its carbon emissions, the government continues to prioritize investment in coal-fired power plants while failing to capitalize on recent progress made in wind, solar and nuclear energy technologies. It is crucial that South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2019 and Renewable Independent Power Producer Program (REIPPP) be revised and expanded respectively to harness the potential of these advances to provide more great long-term economic and environmental benefits to the country. The CSIR data demonstrated that “South Africa has ideal conditions to introduce a very large amount of variable renewables into the power system in a cost-effective manner.” The rest could be supplemented by open-cycle gas turbines, essentially eliminating medium- and long-term coal requirements.
South Africa, however, remains heavily dependent on an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants, despite being the 12th largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the world. The country’s current generation capacity is around 58,000 MW, of which 38,000 MW comes from 15 coal-fired power plants, which account for around 80% of the country’s energy mix, followed by renewables at 16% and nuclear at 5%. . The current shortfall in power generation capacity is expected to continue to grow in the near term, increasing the risk of load shedding.
At last year’s COP26 climate summit, an agreement was reached for South Africa to receive $8.5 billion in funding from the US, UK and EU member states. European Union to help transition from coal to a low-carbon economy. . However, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), Gwede Mantashe, has continually warned against the transition, citing problems with energy supplies and South Africa’s high unemployment rate. Currently, Eskom plans to decommission between 8,000 and 12,000 MW of coal capacity from its fleet by 2031. However, decommissioning is already well behind schedule. Meanwhile, the IRP outlines the government’s intention to build 1,500MW of new coal capacity by 2030, which is hard to fathom.
Building new coal plants will increase both CO2 emissions and long-term energy costs, especially given the rate at which the cost of renewables has fallen over the past decade. Despite calls for a green economic recovery from the pandemic, environmental concerns have been given lower priority than economic and political considerations. Based on scientific evidence provided by the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the impacts of climate change have started to occur at a rapid rate and temperatures are increasing at a rate twice higher than that of the planet in sub-Saharan Africa. Burning fossil fuels, especially coal, will only increase global carbon emission levels, causing dangerous interference with the climate system. Coal can therefore only be a temporary solution to the energy crisis.
Short-term measures that focus only on immediate economic recovery without addressing long-term sustainability issues will have disastrous effects on the climate and the economy. It is important that South Africa considers alternatives that will enhance economic growth while combating climate change. An alternative is to increase investment in nuclear power generation, given some of the recent progress made to address long-standing safety and environmental concerns associated with the industry.
Since the early 2000s, research studies on nuclear energy and significant technological advances in the sector have multiplied. A recent study by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) claims that nuclear power can make a substantial contribution to decarbonizing the electricity supply, helping to meet climate goals by 2050. uclear energy is a relatively clean source of energy that is often overlooked in the energy debate. It is also the world’s second largest source of low-carbon electricity and eliminates harmful air pollutants. Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, Ratioality, that burning coal kills more people around the world in one day than nuclear power has killed in its entire history.
South Africa currently operates a 2-unit nuclear power plant (Koeberg) in Cape Town. While the expansion of nuclear power has been advocated by Eskom as a way to help South Africa achieve its climate change ambitions under the Paris Agreement, expansion plans operation of Koeberg (which was to be retired in 2024) may not be viable. Koeberg has been in business since 1984 (a time when nuclear was seen as a low cost option for South Africa) and relies on old technology lacking modern safety features, posing a threat to people living in proximity. Operational incidents at the plant earlier this year brought to the fore discussions about Koeberg’s current safety ratings and the future of South Africa’s nuclear power generation capacity.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) offer a better alternative to large power plants like Koeberg. These are smaller-scale projects that can play a vital role in helping South Africa transition to a low-carbon economy by replacing aging coal-fired power plants and expanding the nuclear market. The development of SMRs includes water-cooled land and marine reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled SMRs, fast neutron spectrum reactors, molten salt reactors and, more recently, micro-reactors. SMRs are a cost-effective power generation option that requires less space than their older counterparts. They produce, on average, a third of the production capacity of traditional nuclear reactors. Unlike power plants, which take five to 16 years to build and are subject to unproductive rent seeking, SMRs have a shorter construction time of three to five years.
The IRP recognizes the vital role nuclear power generation can play in South Africa’s energy mix and proposes a nuclear build program of up to 2,500 MW. However, the IRP should be reviewed taking into account the risks associated with the Koeberg extension, such as security, transmission losses and rent seeking, and instead consider the potential for new nuclear technology developments such as SMRs. .
SMRs are also well suited for inclusion in the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Program (REIPPP) – the government’s plan to bring additional megawatts to the country’s power system through private sector investment in largely renewable energy sources. The president recently announced that the ceiling for this production would be increased from 1 MW to 100 MW. SMRs are relatively small, low-risk projects and their construction times are well within REIPPP mandated timelines. Adding them to the energy mix would help reduce the risk of load shedding during periods of high demand and reduce the load on other energy sources. The REIPP program has been delayed and no project is underway despite the 200 billion rand investments mobilized.
Solar and wind energy are, of course, also essential for diversifying the energy mix, ensuring energy security and reducing GHG emissions. South Africa’s energy needs can be met if wind, solar and SMR are strategically positioned and planned. Nuclear projects are likely to receive a lot of criticism. Public debate, awareness raising and consultation are therefore necessary to build public support and address public fears related to safety and potentially adverse environmental effects.
Leleti Maluleke is a junior researcher for our Human Security and Climate Change program. She obtained her Bachelor of Political Science in Political Studies in 2017 and her Honors in International Relations in 2018 from the University of Pretoria. She started her career at International SOS in the Security Services Department as a Political and Security Risk Intern. Socially, his countries of interest are Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.